Monthly Archives: November 2009

Wednesday: The Library’s Last Stand?

Today, city legislation will be voted upon to transfer $600,000 from the now-relaxed fuel fund to Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh.

Think of it as CPR to be administered while the cardiologist is tied up in traffic. Why walk away and let the patient die on the sidewalk when there are still perfectly viable options to be pursued?

And now, the big news:

But by yesterday afternoon Mr. Ravenstahl said a hybrid of those approaches “would be a reasonable solution, and one that, on its face, I would be supportive of. But the critical piece of that, that I would need in order to not make cuts this year — significant cuts — is getting that tuition tax passed and out there into the court system.” (P-G, Rich Lord)

Um, if the bureaucratic pruning and the patchwork of revenue generation is sufficient to fill the budget hole (I won’t even address the latest revival of the symphony “GAH! Police and fire cuts! Your homes will be burned and robbed!”), why would we hold out to levy the Student Tax?

But Mr. Ravenstahl said that without the “threat” of a tuition tax, they’ll feel that $5.5 million over three years is enough. “There’s nothing that compels them to do anything more, so they’re able to get away with that.” (ibid)

A-HA! So it is that we’re playing chess!

I would be on board with maneuvers such as this — have been begging for them, in fact — but why not be up-front about them to better mobilize the rank-and-file support of the people? And related to that, if we’re trying to alienate the non-profits, was taxing tuition optimal? There had to have been ways to apply the squeeze that were more appealing — and did not involve impugning the civic worth of some constituents.

Finally, this business of accusing the ICA of being controlled by shadowy, conflicted, greedy forces, is starting to sound like — well, like me. And my schtick has a spotty record of success.

Related: hopefully this means County Council is sticking to its guns. Its plan, though its legality also remains a mystery, seems a lot better targeted. (P-G, Rich Fitzgerald)

More stories:

Aiming to stop Pittsburgh government from subsidizing “poverty-level jobs,” a coalition of labor, environmental, religious and community organizations joined City Council members yesterday to propose wage floors for certain workers on city-backed development projects and contracts. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Good start! The “prevailing wage” is actually kind of a crummy wage, and this doesn’t address the issue of additional obligations that might come with public subsidies, but this sets an excellent baseline. I knew the 2009 Council had it in’em.

In what officials said would be the largest grant ever made directly to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has offered the district $40 million for sweeping initiatives to maximize teacher effectiveness. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Here’s an uncomfortable question if you’re me: would the Gateseses have consented to this “intensive partnership” had our School District not set off on this noteworthy campaign of closing beloved schools and ruthlessly reorganizing them? (If that’s what impressed them, we could say it was a real blessing in disguise that Schenley had that asbestos emergency, huh?).

“It’s going to be a year of frustration” between the Penn Circle work and the construction of the Target, but “it’s really all towards the future progress of East Liberty,” Hogan said. (Trib, Matthew Santoni)

It’s been half a century worth of frustration at Penn Circle as it is. Besides which, straightening that infrastructure nightmare strikes me as a “community benefit”. Celebration time, come on!

The Band: The Pretenders

The song: Middle of the Road

BREAKING: ICA Throws Down Gauntlet [**]

Sciortino, McNees & Co. galumphed all the way to the Post-Gazette Editorial Suites to reveal this:

The state-picked Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority is poised to reject Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s $453.8 million budget because it doesn’t go far enough to cut costs and includes a tax that may not be enforceable, officials said this morning. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Wonder if the administration will take them up on their specific suggestions, or try something even more creative.

*-UPDATE: Lots of uproar over how the ICA only put forth these objections now, and I have a theory. This could be the beginning of a new phase for how the state overlords treat the Ravenstahl administration. Until now it was always, “For goodness sake, let’s not embarrass the boy! He gets a lot of business done for the Governor, you know, and we can’t be party to letting anyone into power who might rouse rabble and stir trouble in our colony.” Now however, for the first time, Ravenstahl’s political position is utterly assured — so the ICA can forget its coddling and its “conditional approval” of a month ago, and come straight out with, “No actually, your budget is no good sir, try again only with less money this time.”

**-UPDATE: As Mayo livetweets this morning’s meeting:

Oy. Where to start?

Monday: Everything but the Politics (Kinda)

Important things first.

“They’re clearly the best team in the division,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark told reporters. “I’d give my left arm to play them again.” Maybe in the playoffs. (T. Star, Garth Woolsey)

Ryan Clark is being classy, but I’m sorry. Did anyone watch that game and witness the Bengals playing like some kind of elite team? Did anyone see the Steelers playing — um, period? The Benglas performed pretty well, but it was the Black and Gold putting in a very grey and bronze effort which was the problem.

If this all gets the Steelers players humble and keyed up for next time (and there will be a next time), then great. But I’m not buying what the sports media is selling this week about the Bengals. I sure hope the Bengals are, though.

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Here we go again:

The 2006 restructuring dealt only with elementary, K-8 and middle schools. DeJong’s plan would close two high schools — Oliver on the North Side and Peabody in East Liberty — with entrenched identities. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Comments reserved until I learn what I might be talking about.

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Lots of people are commenting on the proposed Student Tax and what we might do instead in its place. The Mayor asked for ideas and he’s starting to get them, though none of them are perfect yet.

Rep. Bob Freeman suggests taking the 18 percent tax on wine and liquor — long called the “Johnstown Flood Tax” because it was implemented to meet the 1936 crisis — and dedicate it to Pennsylvania’s ongoing, slow-motion nightmare of city financing. (P-G, Brian O’Neill)

That’d be great, except elsewhere in the article we are assured it won’t happen.

Yarone Zober, Ravenstahl’s chief of staff, said the mayor has spoken with Mr. Freeman about his bill and welcomes any relief to communities that host tax-exempt organizations. Mr. Zober said when the mayor met with university presidents a couple of weeks ago, he didn’t specifically mention this bill, but told them, “We need your help. We need you to be lobbying in our behalf.” (ibid)

Well — why won’t it happen? Can we organize something? Get a few more folks involved?

And if the Governor is the problem — what do our gubernatorial hopefuls think about the idea?

At day’s end, Luke’s Fluke is the direct result of Ravenstahl’s refusal to cut costs when and where he could have in years past. Consolidation of city functions — purchasing, parks, trash collection, snow removal, insurance, street repair and others — with their direct counterparts in Allegheny County government would be a good start. (Trib, Joseph Sabino Mistick)

I would have loved to see that as well on its own merits, but in fairness there is some question as to whether the cost savings would have totaled those figures and have been realized in the short-term.


But if Ravenstahl really believes that all our nonprofits should be contributing more for city services, he should show some political courage, fight them head-on and not try to get to them through our kids. (ibid)

That is good stuff.

Meanwhile it should be noted that Doug Shields was the first to strongly recommend to the ICA that it must get together and make a ruling on the Student Tax, adding:

Believe me, I’ve already heard from a number of city residents who presently pay their fair share of wage and property taxes who would be paying “more than their fair share” because they are also enrolled in a post secondary educational institution within the city. If this is to be enacted I would argue that there is going to be a need for exemptions. (Correspondence)

And Bill Peduto sent out an e-mail to supporters with the subject, “Moving Backward” also assailing the tax, and advising of an announcement probably later in the week of a “better idea” for balancing the budget.

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Health care! Yeeeeaargh!

In this case it’s everyone’s moral imperative (those who oppose abortion rights do so with the same authentic moral fervor as those who support them) against everyone’s other moral imperative (those who believe decent health care is a human right versus those who believe it is no such thing). (P-G, David Shribman)

It sounds like Shribman has intentionally or unintentionally bought into a conservative framework of the issue. Advocates for public health care do not need to believe that decent health care is a human right (and many of them don’t). They only need to believe it is a good idea if you are a country. I do not believe for example that regular oil changes are a basic automotive right to which my car is entitled. However, I know that if I don’t change its oil regularly it will run poorly and break down on me, and then I’ll be a sad sack public transportation and walking person, and my options and earning potential will be limited. We’re not asking for health care to be humane — we’re asking for health care so we can get back to beating up on China and the E.U.

Elsewhere in Schrib’s column, I think he runs afoul of 2PJ’s frequent point that Stupak does not simply prohibit funding of abortions, but strongly disincentivizes plans in the private sector from offering the option of covering abortions.

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Back to the City. As if pensions weren’t bad enough:


[The 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 2006 Chrysler Sebring convertible and 2007 Buick Lucerne are] totaled,” [a guy from Squirrel Hill] said. “It’s heartbreaking.” (P-G, Rich Lord)

There! Cars! Are you interested in the Water Authority yet, Pittsburgh??

On Friday, Mr. Kenney confirmed that the authority has been considering a 5 percent rate increase since September. A draft budget includes a $9 million gap, half of which would be filled from the rate hike, the other half from the authority’s $38 million savings account. A board vote could come Dec. 11.

The authority didn’t raise rates this year or last, but before that had raised rates every year from 2003 through 2007, compounding to a 50 percent hike. (ibid)

And that will only pay for the right to continue to be in this deteriorating situation.

Last year the authority’s debt surpassed that of the city government, which has a budget three times the size of the water system’s. That was driven by the authority’s decision to enter into a complex $414 million debt package that included instruments called swaps, in which the authority and finance firms make payments to each other. The amounts of the payments shift as variable rate debt interest rates change. (ibid)

That made a bad situation almost comedic. And it was not impossible to know at the time that that maneuver was a risky maneuver to make on the behalf of the public, and we should remember that. But here we are.

The region, and authority, will likely turn to the federal government for help, but can’t count on getting much, said Mr. Strauss. “That’s like planning on the tooth fairy,” he said. (ibid)

You know what? If you have baby teeth, and you know your parents are attentive and at least somewhat affluent, then relying on the tooth fairy is a safe bet.

We can demonstrate that we are dealing with other problems. This is public infrastructure. Much of these are legacy costs that do not even particularly fall into the “poor decisions of the past” category. There is still a favorable atmosphere for “economic stimulus”. We should be able to make a strong case here. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised we haven’t heard anything already.

Updates: Circling Back toward the Hill


Things are looking bleak for what seemed like a done deal:

When 20 or so Hill District residents attended the regularly scheduled Dinwiddie Community Alliance meeting, they expected to hear from Hill House CEO Evan Frazier that construction would soon begin on a grocery and retail center anchored by a Kuhn’s market.

Instead they heard Kuhn’s has not committed to the project, despite giving that impression to the community, the Hill House and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh for nearly a year. (Courier, Christian Morrow)

It must also be mentioned that Mr. Frazier himself soon will be moving on to Highmark Inc., for to handle community affairs — rather like Ron Porter, his predecessor at the Hill House, moved on with the Penguins.

And very related:

Hill District groups want a community master plan before the Penguins start developing a 28-acre site near the new arena but haven’t yet gotten the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s approval to hire the necessary consultant. The Penguins agreed in a community benefits agreement not to start development until Feb. 19, but Mr. Lavelle said there’s no way a master plan can be in place by that time.

“We probably will have to seek an extension of the deadline,” Mr. Lavelle said. (P-G, Rich Lord)

That one had been apparent for a little while. If you are a CBA enthusiast, one moral of this story is that your CBA isn’t likely to be very successful if it ensures only contingent future processes for benefits rather than concrete benefits.

But let’s say you’re not particularly a CBA enthusiast. What is the takeaway? Well, one is the importance in public affairs of keeping deals: not only contractual deals but handshakes, virtual handshakes and understandings. I do not exempt myself from this; for example as a novice I did not comprehend until very recently the 45% Rule and you can have your own conversations amongst yourselves.

At any rate, I suppose the unique importance of the Hill area as a neighborhood to the whole of Pittsburgh’s geis will have to become an item of contemplation again. I hope I can help bring its now very recent history into a balanced yet thorough perspective. Because obviously there is still time and hope. No one has an interest in seeing little besides scorched earth and continued festering discontent.

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Daniel D. Regan is to take over as City Solicitor, pending interview? and confirmation, while for George Specter it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire at the URA. (P-G, Karamagi Rujumba)

Bill Peduto asks the ICA to make an immediate ruling on the legal propriety of the Student Tax, which I’ve got to say seems reasonable and expeditious. (Correspondence)

Moveon.org is going after Jason Altmire, which I have say is only going to help him. They should create a nom de plume for themselves in this effort here locally such as “Citizens Against Duplicity”. (Early Returns)

Someone is telling me that Robb Hollow Park is being misused as a leaf waste site. (Desperate Correspondence)

Hmm, I generally don’t think it’s disgraceful to offer a hypothesis, express an opinion about it, or even to play politics if you think that’s what will be most effective. But hey at least they are all trying to work it out. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

Friday: Lots to Consider

Am I the last person to know about this neat little website? That would be ironic.

State Representative Chelsa Wagner was joined by several current and future Pittsburgh City Council members this morning in calling for the library system to detail how much money will be saved by closing each of the four libraries slated to be shuttered in the coming year. Wagner says the library told her that the data she was seeking is not available. She wonders how the board can know that closing the branches will balance the budget if that data is not available. (WDUQNews)

Wagner was not alone amongst elected officials in venting considerable confusion and frustration. Paging Councilman Kraus! It would be helpful to hear from an accountable-type person who possesses inside — and presumably better — knowledge of the Library’s decision making.

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At least we are giving our thinking caps some exercise:

In the wake of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s Monday proposal of a 1 percent tuition tax, Mr. Burgess said that next week he’ll introduce related legislation. He would have the city appraise higher education properties, estimate the costs of serving their students and press them for consistent, voluntary donations. (P-G, Rich Lord; see also Trib, Adam Brandolph)

What’s nice about this idea, obviously, is that it would spread the burden over a larger number of nonprofit institutions, many of whom definitely deserve some burden. However, it’s another measure based on negotiations and volunteerism — which generally means a lack of predictability and quite underwhelming results.

I suppose the idea for this campaign is that Land Appraisals + Service Cost Estimates + our Financial Peril becoming Apparent to Joe Q. Public + the Present Political Atmosphere of Desiring to Legislate into the Nonprofits Wallets = maybe they will now see the light. It bears further discussion.

One more thing: I can’t remember which news article, but Controller Michael Lamb suggested in response to the Fair Tax proposal that we should instead be going to Harrisburg to lobby for a payroll preparation tax on nonprofits. Um — someone tell me we have already done so? With some seriousness?

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I hate columns that don’t tell you what to do. No not really — “hate” is a strong word, as sometimes no one knows what to do. Yet it sux to be left only with a sense of foreboding and anxiety. (P-G, Brian O’Neill)

West Penn Allegheny is like the Chuck McCullough of health systems. (Trib, Luis Fabregas)

Is it our “infrastructure needs” which are “sobering”, or is it the results of that bond swap activity? I feel like I was talked into being outraged about something that now it appears I should accept as mundane. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Does anybody know to what reforms the Trib is alluding? (Trib, Edit Board)

And now, tweeting in living color:

Ew, hope not. Call me a purist, but with the neat and very apropos exception of “You” in 2006, I prefer my POTY to be people not concepts. Time Magazine should just pick somebody like Jon Stewart, or Capt. Sully, or Mayor Fetterman and be done with it.

My Immediate Reaction to Bonusgate II

Has Attorney General Tom Corbett been motivated to go after corruption in the State Legislature because of his own political ambition? Sure.

Does that mean it was difficult for him to find a bunch of Democrats and Republicans who are very likely guilty of stuff? Nah, I truly doubt it.

Do I care how, in phenomenological terms, they came to be prosecuted? Not really. Am I excited to see them all get prosecuted? Heck yeah!

Why? I want my elected officials scared witless of committing even the slightest, most borderline inappropriate acts. I want good little boy scouts and girl scouts.

We choose to elect our Attorneys General presumably because we want to see them do our bidding — and this is our bidding. Besides which, there are such things and grand juries, judges and trials, you know. A prosecutor can’t personally wave a magic wand and assign guilt to the guiltless, no matter what the accused would often have us believe. The worst he or she can do by themselves is put an innocent person through some heartache and temporary humiliation — and that regrettable eventuality is a small price to pay for engendering an atmosphere that is appropriately hostile to corruption.

Now that he’s gotten the indictments out of his system, is it time for Tom Corbett to step down prior to the fat part of his Gubernatorial bid? Yes, it seems about that time.

The Fair Post


On the “Fair Share Tax”. First things first:

In a pronouncement that could complicate final passage of the 2010 budget, Controller Michael Lamb said he’s not yet convinced that the tax can be enacted without state approval. (P-G, Lord and Schachner)

Versus:

But Bob Kassoway, executive director of the House Finance Committee, under Democratic control, said the city probably doesn’t need state approval, noting that the Local Tax Enabling Act’s nickname, decades ago, was “the tax anything act.” (ibid)

This mirrors the debate going on at the County, where many are trying to levy other fees on non-profits. The way things roll in these arguments, it seems, is that those people philosophically in favor of a particular tax become convinced of its legality, whereas those people opposed on principle to it become convinced of its patent illegality. That includes the solicitors, on behalf of whomever they answer to. It’s a standoff that’s supremely annoying.

One thing’s for sure: both the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are so far behind the eight ball, they’re going to need to find ways to milk money from the fiery engine which are our tax-exempt institutions in some way.

As it stands, none of the suggestions that have been floated are “legal” or “illegal” yet — that’s like trying to determine whether the child you have not yet conceived will grow up to prefer gin and tonics or scotch. The borderline, interpretive cases aren’t legal or illegal until a judge makes it so.

So regardless of whether you’d like to tax college tuition, or hospital beds, or water usage, or square yards of real estate — let’s just debate those on the merits, select one or two, and go with it. Then a real life judge can finally tell us whether what we’ve attempted is kosher — and if it’s not we go back to the drawing board, and the Act 47 administrators will simply have to acknowledge we tried our best and cut us some slack.

Meanwhile, this crawling around in the legal dark isn’t moving anything at all forward. Do let us try something.

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Mayor Ravenstahl has been arguing that no prospective college student is going to notice this tax when deciding where to go to school, and few of them are going to feel its impact compared to what the colleges and universities are already charging them for various things.

He happens to be right.

This is going to upset students who are reading the newspaper this month and next month, but that’s about all. If twenty of those transfer out of protest, it will be shocking. But it’s not enough to dissuade people into choosing another school or change our favorable educational dynamic. I’m even not certain how prospective students will discover that Pittsburgh charges an educational privilege tax until they see it on their invoices.

In addition, I tire of hearing the argument, “You can’t tax the thing that is succeeding best! You’ll kill the goose laying our golden eggs!” Well, do these people prefer taxing those activities which are doing poorly? The ones exactly in the middle? The activities at which we excel with predictability are the preferable things to tax with care — because they are strongest for whatever reason and there’s more cream to skim.

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There is still however a fairness argument to be made, and this is where I adore that it’s called the “Fair Share” tax. I remember watching a Harold Hayes report on KDKA, in which he said that the “so-called Fair Share tax” would charge college students up to $400 bucks for utilizing Pittsburgh services eight months a year — whereas the commuter tax charges workers a mere $52 for twelve months a year. It was crisp and devastating.

And by the way: plenty of non-matriculating adults get thoroughly wasted and trash Carson St., while lots of college students spend all night studying.

Meaning — anything that impinges upon students alone without distributing the pain among our hospitals and medical centers is not “fair.” That was the first tip-off that I wasn’t going to like this tax proposal: they had to go and call it the “Fair Share”. Kind of makes you wonder what they’ll call their next tax proposal — they already burned the most obvious Orwellian option.

Speaking of:

Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl wants the entire City of Pittsburgh to wear University of Pittsburgh colors on Friday, November 13th in anticipation of Pitt’s football game against Notre Dame. (WPXI)

Chutzpah with a capital Ch! Well, the Mayor’s last-minute attempt to transform a Steelers home game into a Let’s Everybody Honor the Police event directly on the heels of the embarrassing night Oakland didn’t exactly catch fire, so there’s no reason to believe this stunt will wow anybody.

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Which brings us to the decision at hand:

The mayor’s plan, though not ideal, gives the city a way to reap revenue from the burgeoning educational enterprises that have grown up to replace its shrunken manufacturing base.

Unless someone has a better idea. (P-G Edit Board)

Exactly. Now make no mistake: this tax is not going be approved or rejected based on whether Councilors think it a fine idea. It’s going to get settled on whether they can A) agree upon other revenue generators or cost savings to take its place literally on-time or B) how they feel this time around about forging ahead into that Great Unknown of not having a balanced budget either literally after the deadline, or after the Mayor starts banging the drums, blaming Council, and complaining that it’s about to destroy the City.

That’s why I think this thing is sure to pass — unless a bunch of them agree to go the way of, say, water fee hikes. Which would distribute the pain across far more non-profits, and place the onus on them as to whether and how to pass on those charges to their many respective consumer bases. Which would be preferable.

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That all having been said. Boy oh boy, wouldn’t it be grand if one city official somewhere came forward with the proposal, “We can save half a million here.” Or “We can cut half a million there.” Just one. That would be stellar.

To be truthful, since we’re agonizing over all these tax options, and the natives are growing restless, it might be the ideal occasion to for someone to gingerly broach the subject of bringing into the cruel 21st century our employee benefit plans as well — but I don’t want to give anyone a heart attack!

Two (I Thought They’d Be) Brief Thoughts on the Budget


I’m starting to think that we over think things…

Firstly: Didn’t we have a $100 million surplus as late as May? I definitely remember hearing quite a bit about Pittsburgh having built up an impressive $100 million “rainy day” surplus during March, April and most of May.

Now I’m honestly not trying to be coy here — but why don’t we apply $15 million a year from that for the next three years, to patch this budget hole until maybe something better surfaces? Seems like as good a use as any, and we’d still have $55 million left over. And if we don’t still have that $100 million surplus … what happened to our $100 million surplus? Did we burn through it already? Did anybody ever ask? If it’s gone already, I’d love to see a story which itemizes where it went off to so quickly.

That’s probably enough for you right there, but I’ll press my luck.

Secondly: From that one blog post –>

And while you’re at it, city, don’t even expect a single one of us to believe there isn’t a gross, gross waste of taxpayer dollars happening on Grant Street. Shall I remind you of the quarter of a million dollars spent on 250 trash cans? (That’s Church)

Alright, setting aside the trash cans. We seem awfully quick to accept that we need to generate an additional $15 million per year, almost as though we are pre-programmed.

Every October before a general election, some Republican or Republican-like Independent will say something like, “We could still be more efficient!” or, “We shouldn’t be taxing students and the sick!” And the Democratic incumbent will be like, “Then you need to tell us where to cut! Do you want to get rid of the fire department? Hmmm?”

But here’s the thing — it takes a very specialized, localized institutional knowledge to understand the city’s budget: what the line-items actually mean and what are the encumbrances on the funds; but more importantly, it takes an absurdly specialized localized institutional knowledge to understand the ins and outs of City operations, in order to figure out how things are executed day-to-day and how much things could cost or might cost if done differently.

One example: we needed funds to keep our libraries open, and bam! Doug Shields discovers $600,000 extra sitting around in the fuel fund, due to price shifts. You can’t notice that unless you’re on the inside — and not to take anything away form Shields, but that’s a case of newly unaccounted-for money going to a library. Can you imagine the opportunities if you actually wanted to take money away from someone’s turf to go towards — shrinkage?

A second example: someone told me once about the mysterious “Pension Fund 3” or “Pension Fund 2B” or some such. This was an account so obsolete, that one mayoral administration didn’t even pass knowledge of it on to the next; each one had to rediscover its slush-fundy potential over time. Again, not to take anything away from individual Democrats — but I’ve got to imagine that in a government in which only maybe a dozen people understand the budget (four or five administration officials, three or four councilors, maybe a couple staffers and Bill Urbanac) and of which no classically conservative Republican individual has meaningfully set foot anywhere in the building in 70 years (except for the one currently writing the Mayor’s speeches, and we know he won’t stir trouble), all we can do is trust the government blindly when it tells us, “Yeah, we’ve already cut to the bone, there’s a gun to our head, give us more money.”

My point being: this discussion was framed in terms of, “We need $15 million more per year, and we need it now, now!!!” and we just think we’re too well informed to question why / how / whether-or-not.